Retail Front

Why Call Them Auto Dealers?


Some people think auto-retailing name changes are in order.

Let’s stop calling car dealers car dealers.

That’s what Chuck Parker proposes. He’s an auto journalist who has covered the industry a long time. He doesn’t hesitate to tell people what he thinks, often framed as a question, but typically accompanied by his nice-guy grin.

“Why do you call yourself dealers?” Parker asks a couple of them at an American Financial Services Assn. automotive conference. “Right off the bat, it says someone is dealing.”

Well, it’s not like they’re dealing drugs, but I guess I get his point. It spooks car shoppers if they think they’re dealing with a wheeler-dealer type.

That’s why auto retailing has shifted to a softer sell, price transparency and an emphasis on a pleasant experience for customers who feel fairly treated. But no name changes accompanied all that.

One of the people to whom Parker asks his question is AutoNation’s e-commerce vice president, Famous Rhodes. He’s the son of a dealer who apparently had really high expectations for his son, or at least didn’t use a book of common boys’ names when he picked Famous.

Rhodes recalls using the word “dealership” during a conversation with Michael Jackson, CEO of AutoNation, the country’s largest dealership chain. “Mike said, ‘We don’t have dealerships, we have stores.’” A  lot of business people can say that, but they don’t sell motor vehicles.

Toyota dealer Brian McCafferty fields Parker’s name-change suggestion by diplomatically saying, “It’s something we should look at.” 

Dropping the dealer moniker could cause a ripple effect. Would the National Automobile Dealers Assn. become something else? Would we take a chisel to our WardsAuto Dealer Business magazine?

At the conference, Rhodes turns to Gary Tucker, CEO of the review website DealerRater, and says: “Maybe your company’s name should be changed to StoreRater.”

If we start referring to dealerships as stores, let’s get creative. We could go quaint: “Ye Olde Car-iosity Shoppe.” Or cute: “Cars R Us."  

Tucker is noncommittal about retitling DealerRater, but he offers a proposed change of his own. He suggests dropping “salesperson” from the dealership vernacular.

Players proffer replacement names. “Product specialist” works famously for Rhodes.

Motor Trend’s Charlie Vogelheim tongue-in-cheek (I think) comes up with “experience guide,” as in someone who escorts customers during their car-buying journey. (“This way to the wondrous F&I office, folks.”)

Oh, about those customers. Some dealers have quit calling them that, on the premise it sounds too common. So they'll refer to “clients” or “guests.” The latter would fit nicely if Marriott or Westin got in the car business.

However named, the reference is to people who go to a dealership (a.k.a. store), talk with a salesperson (a.k.a. product specialist) and work out a deal (a.k.a. experience).

Quick-witted Vogelheim gets serious (I think) when he says, “I’ll defend the word ‘dealer.’ It’s used holistically.” Holistically? I thought we were talking about selling cars, not practicing medicine.

Parker tells me he’d replace “dealer” with “retailer.” No seismic change there.

Or we can just keep calling them dealers. Unless they sell vintage cars. Then we could call them antique dealers. But wait, that name’s already taken.

Discuss this Blog Entry 4

on Mar 9, 2015

Unfortunately the auto industry is littered with the remains of brands that have tried to make the process and image more consumer-friendly, a counter-intuitive result. GM created the Saturn brand to be very consumer-friendly. Features such as the "no-dicker sticker", commercials showing a small plane landing on the snow at a remote location in Alaska to fix someone's vehicle, and low pricing failed to keep the brand in business. Oldsmobile went so far as to rename dealers "retailers". We see where both those brands are now.
Both Saturn and Oldsmobile attempted to also eliminate rebates. Their reasoning was to sticker-price the vehicle at what the customer would have ultimately paid for the car. It would attempt to eliminate the haggling and the perception that prices were inflated to cover the cost of the rebates, low financing, etc. The end result was that this system was an utter failure. Customers still expected hefty discounts and were disappointed they weren't offered rebates to match what other GM brands were offering.
On your other points, the industry has attempted to polish the image they have by calling salespeople "sales associates", "product specialists", "customer ambassadors", and many more. Service writers have been relabeled "service advisors", "customer care specialists", and other names meant to remove the stigma dealership service departments have of being overpriced rip-off artists.
It has taken literally a century for the industry to have earned some of the negative aura associated with it. It may well take another century to shed any negativity completely.

on Mar 9, 2015

I'm sure consumers will fall for this, and love us to death, right?

I read a recent study created for credit unions where it was stated that the changes in auto retailing, as prompted by the Internet, has happily turned auto retailing into "order taking." What I see when I visit dealerships doesn't look like "order taking," it looks a lot like what it was in 1970. Consumers still need to feel like they got a good deal to buy. To buy they need to feel like they were treated fairly. That is accomplished in different ways for different consumers, since we're not all the same.

@ Chuck - I don't think the term "retailer" works well, since many consumers don't like the idea of paying retail.

Consumers don't like to hear this, but some have to pay too much for others to pay too little, to maintain and average, sell volume, and penetrate the market. There really is no other way to paint this. The FTC seems to be clear that this is what they want, while other government agencies have a different objective in mind. These other government agencies say they like the "market at work" as long as it doesn't accidentally impact "protected classes" they refuse to define.

I think it is about time our indusxtry goes back to selling each consumer one at a time with individual dealers carving out their own identity, without agonizing over how to please consumers as a group, truly a fool's mission.

BUT if someone wants to take the lead in transparency, let him/her advertise their triple net cost, state their margin, and let the consumers flock to their door. That'll work, right?

on Mar 10, 2015

I think "dealer" is very appropriate. The underhanded tactics and high pressure sales push they put you through in making such a high dollar investment makes me believe "dealer", "pusher" or "professional hassle" is the perfect term for most of them. I've been wanting to buy a new car for a while but as soon as I pull into a lot and I'm swarmed by a barrage of salesmen trying to pull a fast one on me it makes me want to hold on to my money and my already paid for car. Dealers needs a total revamp and a mind set change. With the right attitude change car sales could be even bigger and better but "dealers" are their own worst enemy the way it is right now.

on Mar 10, 2015

RE: "With the right attitude change car sales could be even bigger and better but "dealers" are their own worst enemy the way it is right now."

Sounds like a great business venture for you. You could show real dealers how it should be done and make a fortune doing it.

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What's Retail Front?

Blogs about automotive retailing, commenting on news impacting the business of selling vehicles.


Steve Finlay

Steve Finlay is the editor of WardsAuto Dealer Business magazine and a senior editor for His journalism career started 42 years ago as a crime reporter. A Michigan native, he likes...

Jim Ziegler

Jim Ziegler, president of Ziegler Supersystems, is a trainer, commentator and public speaker on dealership issues.
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